A team of scientists from Cambridge University have found that wine glass sizes have increased historically since the first glasses measured, which may indicate increased alcohol consumption. The glasses measured were from the historical period 1700 up to 2017. The researchers published their research in the Christmas edition of the BMJ in December 2017, but their article carried a serious point. Alcohol can be responsible for serious effects on the human body, including the point that it is the fifth biggest risk factor for premature death and disability in higher income countries and the seventh biggest risk, globally.
The scientists were able to find the measurement of 411 glasses. They used the Royal Household as one of the sources as a new set of glassware is commissioned for each monarch. The glassware held in the collection dates from 1808 to 1947. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford had 43 glasses from 1700 - 1800. An online auction site was able to provide 65 glasses from 1840-2016, the Dartington Crystal catalogues provided the measurements of 180 glasses from 1967 - 2017, and John Lewis provided the measurements of 99 glasses from 2016.
The scientists were able to measure the volume of each glass by checking the capacity noted at source, or by calculating the difference in weight between the empty glass and when it was filled with water to the brim. They then compared the change in glass sizes over the time period. The 1700 wine glass held around 66 ml of alcohol while a wine glass from the 21st century holds around 450 ml. The capacity of wine glasses has therefore increased substantially through the centuries. The scientists found that wine glasses have particularly increased in size since the 1990s.
The scientists also previously carried out a 6 week experiment, selling 175ml of wine in 3 different glasses at different times. The sales of the biggest wine glasses rose by 14% while medium and small-sized glasses showed no increase in sales.
The consumption of alcohol is governed by many different factors, including legislation, pricing and taxation, availability and marketing, however it cannot be ruled out that glass size is a factor. The team of scientists acknowledged that larger glass sizes do not necessarily mean that people are drinking more, but the size of the glass could affect people’s perception of the units of alcohol that they are consuming. They linked this study to the evidence that suggests larger plate sizes increase the amount of food eaten, but this study does not prove that larger glass sizes increase alcohol consumption, however, this may be a useful starting point for reducing the use of alcohol in the UK.
Only glasses of wine were included in the study. The researchers were not able to check whether people were buying more of the the large glasses of wine, compared to medium or small glasses. The scientists also noted that wine strength has increased in the UK since 1990, but they were also unable to check the type or amount of wine consumed from the wine glass.
However the scientists were able to point out that when there is no standard measure of wine, then consumers could become confused when trying to work out how much alcohol there is in a unit. This is important, because of drink-driving laws and also because of weekly national guidelines of 14 units for both men and women. The scientists suggested that health bodies should be helping to regulate the size of wine glasses when setting local licensing regulations, raising public awareness of the risks associated with larger glasses of wine, encouraging retailers to price glasses according to size and balance pricing.
Consumers are recommended to spread their drinking over 3 or more days if they regularly drink 14 units a week, try to have several drink-free days every week and note that 14 units is the same as 10 small or 125 ml glasses of wine at 12% alcohol.
Zupan, Z, et al., Wine glass size in England from 1700 to 2017: a measure of our time, BMJ 2017;359:j5623